National Parks are amazing places. Visiting national parks can easily become the highlight of your trip to any state (or country!) Having visited more than 50 parks as a family, we have have come up with some rules and guidelines which I’m going to share in this post. They make visiting national parks so much better.
I love visiting national parks so much, I really wasn’t sure where to begin with my tips and insights. So, consider these to be in a relatively random order. Some may seem obvious to you but trust me, over the years I have answered many questions about visiting national parks and I know some people could use them.
Visiting National Parks: 16 Ways to Boost Your Adventure
1. Check the weather
Few parks are the same throughout the year. A park can change drastically from summer to winter and anything in between.
Take Yosemite National Park, for example. If you visit in February, be prepared to enjoy a winter wonderland of frozen waterfalls and rivers and to put snow chains on your wheels. On the other hand, if you arrive in late August, pack shorts and sleeveless shirts and bring lots of water for hiking the dry and hot trails. May? Now that’s a different place altogether. The best time of year to visit Yosemite is during May and June when the park’s valley turns into a magical elf-country with huge waterfalls streaming into the Merced river. So yeah, if you want to see Yosemite in all its glory, you need to know when to come.
Some parks may simply be almost inaccessible at certain times of the year (think Denali National Park in Alaska in January). With others it’s a question of knowing what to expect and being prepared. “Be prepared” is generally a good rule of thumb when visiting national parks.
2. Check road conditions
Speaking of the weather, take a minute to check road updates in the park’s website. Mountain roads are often closed throughout wintertime, and so for example, don’t plan on crossing the Tioga Pass road in Yosemite before June. In many other parks, roads may need maintenance following heavy rains, or may be closed due to snow. In Yellowstone National Park, we had to turn back more than once because the road was closed due to fires. I think the most surprising and dramatic road closure we experienced was at Zion National Park in Utah. A huge boulder rolled off the cliff and blocked the road and they had to close the entire park. As it happened, we were just trying to pass through, to get to Bryce National Park via the scenic route but had to turn back and find an alternative route. In short, check the park’s website and see that the road you intend to travel is open when you want to be there.
3. Avoid holidays and summer weekends
Or at least, check with the locals first. National parks are usually a local attraction too and the locals’ visiting patterns can be detrimental to the success – or failure – of your own trip. As a rule, the closer the park is to cities, the more likely it is to be affected. Also, the smaller the park, the more likely it is to get overcrowded. When visiting national parks such as Mount Rainier NP near Seattle, your best bet is to stay away during busy holiday weekends.
4. Discuss your plans with a park ranger
With so much information available online, I enjoy creating an itinerary which includes places to see, trails to hike and some park activities. However, I always check them with a park ranger once we actually arrive.
National parks are wild places where things can change fast. We’ve seen road and trail closures due to landslides, wildfires, bear activity, unexpected snowfall, rocks falling and even rescue missions. Find out about these before hitting the trail by making the Information Center your first stop at the park.
5. Join park activities
Special park activities can add a tremendous amount of fun to your visit. I cannot say enough about them. A lecture or a guided tour with a ranger can teach you so much about the park. Many parks hold special events which can really boost your experience. Watching the bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns NP (ranger-guided); Conquering the Tower of London’s wall with ladders and balustrades (we chipped a piece of the wall!); Sun gazing with rangers at Voyageurs National parks, MN; And the list goes on. They all made our visits to those parks all that more special.
6. Have kids join Jr Ranger programs
If you have kids aged 5-14, check for a Jr Ranger or similar park program for youths. Many parks around the globe have them and they provide kids with an educational challenge leading to a unique souvenir: a park badge or patch. There’s nothing quite like a badge you worked hard to get. My kids have a collection of over fifty Jr. Ranger badges (each) from the US, Canada and Israel and they cherish each one.
7. Switch off your phone
Easier said than done, I know. Still, here’s what we do. We have set a rule for our kids which says: Once you enter the gates of a national park, you have to switch off your phone/tablet. This means they actually see the sights, soak in the views and get the full experience. We – the parents – try to do the same.
8. Take lots of pictures
National parks are full of surprises. Even the smaller parks or the ones that focus on history protect the wildlife within the park perimeter. Which means you can see some pretty awesome critters, even if not all of them are bear and bison.
It can be a group of Monarch butterflies, or a couple of birds of prey flying above the road, or perhaps even a unique plant that’s hard to spot elsewhere. It’s why we always keep a camera ready. You just never know what might happen next and what you might see and wish to document.
9. Assess the length of visit in advance
Spend a while estimating just how much time you need to visit the park. Smaller parks, such as Bryce Canyon NP can be visited and appreciated within a few hours. Others may require a few days to a week. Just because a place is called a “national park” doesn’t really tell you much about the size of the place or the time needed to see it. I’ve met people who thought Yellowstone NP can be experienced in half a day. That’s nearly impossible. You’d need a full day just to cross the park, with a couple of stops on the way, and if you want to incorporate the top park attractions, a full day won’t be enough. So, find out and be prepared to allocate a good amount of time.
10. Stay near where you want to spend time
The size of the park can greatly affect your choice of accommodation. If you want to focus your visit a part of a very large national park, you need to be aware of the time it might take you to get from your hotel to that part. If you want to hike Many Glacier in Glacier NP, don’t stay at Kalispell, MT, which is on the other side of the Rockies.
11. Consider staying within the park
Lookup accommodation within the park. Often, staying within the park can actually be cheaper than staying outside the park (strange, but true!), but you may need to book your stay there well in advance as space is limited. So, plan your trip to the park well in advance and try to stay within the park if you can.
12. Learn about the dangers
Some park dangers are apparent, others not so much. A lot depends on your own personal background. Coming from a warm climate, for example, meant we needed to learn about mountain hiking in colder climates. Extreme weather, flash floods, sneaker waves, volcanic activity, wild animals and even exotic disease – there are so many strange dangers that you can encounter while visiting national parks.
We’ve seen warnings about all of the above and then some more. Educate yourself and keep safe. Parks usually offer safety leaflets, so make sure you read them, and if you’re not sure about something, ask a park ranger.
If you’re visiting national parks in bear areas, join a ranger safety talk about bears. Each park has its risks, from poison ivy to grizzly bears, so read up and be a smart park visitor.
13. Learn about the history of the park
Learning about the history of the park can really add a lot to your experience. From the geological processes which created the valleys and mountains, to the human history – ancient to recent – you can gain a whole new perspective on things you see when you know the park’s story. Realizing that the trees around us have been planted by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps less than a century ago, provided our Shenandoah Park visit with a whole new layer of appreciation.
14. Hit the trails!
There’s a saying in Hebrew that roughly translates into: The way to truly get to know a land is through your feet. Hiking is all about immersing yourself in nature and getting to know an area intimately, using all of your senses. We always try to include hikes when visiting national parks. Even parks that focus on caves offer interesting trails above the ground. When visiting Wind Cave NP in South Dakota, we spent a couple of hours hiking an interesting trail above ground, which few visitors do. It gave us a chance to experience the grass prairie, as well as our first glimpse of a bison on that trip.
15. Follow the park rules
Be a respectful visitor and follow park rules. This often means driving slowly, and following the: “take only photos, leave only footprints” rule. And make sure those footprints remain only on the trail too! National parks should be preserved for future generations to enjoy, so be respectful and you will be rewarded with a sense of participation in a wonderful project.
16. Come back again!
With so many places to see around the world, it’s always a dilemma. Still, we have returned to many parks and will do so in the future as well. A national park is like a magical glass ball, a microcosm of the world, ever changing with the seasons and the progress of time. Wildfires, floods, global climate change and human actions mean a park is rarely the same a couple of years later, and so coming back can provide you with a genuinely fresh experience.
What about you? How do you make the most of visiting national parks? Share your tips and insights in a comment!